writer and director, benjamin wachtel, writes about the complexity of his sexual identity

ESSAY/ New York City
15 July, 2018
Producer: A Nasty Boy
Words: Benjamin Wachtel

Explaining my bisexuality to people usually involves disarming stereotypes. I can predict the assumptions: “It’s a phase. You’re really gay. Are you doing this for attention? You just want to be different. What about marriage, what about children?” These are easy preconceptions to battle if you’re under fifty, have confidence and live in New York City. While there is no shame in being non-committal and sex-positive, I believe these qualities are frequently projected onto people who act on an attraction to both sexes. Because I give myself permission to act on same-sex attraction in a society where it is common not to, doesn’t mean I hit on everyone. Being bisexual has actually taught me the virtue of being selective with what and whom I give my energy to. Without self-restraint, people can sweep you away.

I heard the other day that sexually fluid is a rising trend. I’m amused. Every time I hear someone tell me they are thinking about sleeping with someone of the same sex, I feel like screaming “finally!” Appreciating one gender is not my “natural” mode, yet it took me years to feel comfortable in same-sex relationships. The compulsion to keep it heterosexual is ingrained in most societies, and for years I mistook that to be natural. I chose to adopt this mindset and was limited by it. It was the choice that kept me safe. It was survival. I believe a lot of survival instincts are detrimental to an expansive life as an adult. Choosing to blend in creates anxiety over who you truly are. Dividing your identity makes it difficult to function. If you find a member of the same sex attractive, what is stopping you from acting on it? I’m curious why I give myself permission to do something that many don’t. What will it take for everyone to be candid about who they are and what they want?


When you define masculinity by placing a limit on what you can and cannot do, upholding that perspective is exhausting. Even non-sexual intimacy between two men makes many people uncomfortable. A person who identifies as heterosexual can admit when a member of the same sex is attractive but is often quick to change the subject. This is fear of judgment. Women cuddle and hold hands with their friends without it being sexual, yet you seldom see two men do this without a gay label. It’s limiting.

Western culture continues to be more receptive to female bisexuality — likely due to a suffocating chauvinism that I don’t wish to unpack in this format. Ironically, one of the more difficult aspects of being openly bisexual is the reception I’ve received from heterosexual women who view my intimacy with men as a turn-off. To be disqualified from befriending or dating you because I’ve experienced same-sex intimacy is unfair. I guess it’s only attractive for women to be bisexual. I don’t accept that.

Women often have a stigma of making intimacy complicated. Saying that dating a woman is more difficult than dating a man is a false generalization I hear too often. Having dated both, I believe that each gender comes with unique challenges. Society makes the differences, not the gender. The pervasive courtship that is involved in heterosexual encounters is a game you seldom find in same-sex relationships. A friend of mine recently spent weeks courting a girl on Tinder before getting an offline date. This is rare between two men — chivalry and tradition lose their relevance when gender roles are irrelevant. There is much less pretense.

I was at a party a few weeks ago listening to a gay friend of mine complain about how the boy he had his first same-sex experience with grew up to identify as straight. A chorus of voices with the same sentiment went around the room: “Well he’s clearly in denial and repressing his gay-ness.” I sat in silence — too tired to go into my feelings on the matter. What I should have said: “None of you are this man. None of you has his mind so none of you knows what he thinks. Can you, just for one second, stop using your own life experiences to judge someone else’s choices? Whether or not he is doing it out of repression or whatever, is nobody’s business but his own. He’s not hurting anyone by choosing to be straight, just like you are not hurting anyone by choosing to be gay.” The desire for gay men to wish everyone was gay, exists in moments like this and it is unfortunate that people who are marginalized have the ability to say things that marginalize others. There is room enough for everyone to be how they wish to be.

With anti-sexual harassment movements like “me too” finally getting notoriety, many of my male, heterosexual friends are scared to flirt with women offline. I think heterosexual men are in the habit of building windowless walls and are therefore trapped in the dark about the possibilities of life as a human being. I hope to cast some light on their perspective and inspire them to reexamine the rulebooks they carry. There is always room for change. An ability for all of us to be completely honest, pay attention to which thoughts we entertain, and not throw out the ideas society deems impossible. We close ourselves off from expansive experiences because we are afraid of change. What a shame. Navigating what is good or bad for you comes down to quieting the mind, finding silence and listening.

Coming to terms with my sexuality has been at its most organic when I got out of the way. Sexuality evolves. As an artist, how can I search for beauty in all forms, without giving myself the permission to try? There are many ways to appreciate what moves you. Getting caught up in intellectual thinking is not one of them. Adopting a judgmental perspective is not one of them.

Working in New York City makes it easy to both uphold and forget these virtues. Urban spaces have a transience that can be very distracting. I am the kind of person who needs privacy to recharge and create. Forming a productive schedule lies on me and tactics to shut out the distraction are necessary. There are days where I get carried away by social obligations in New York. Dynamic personalities – outspoken, bold and blunt – elevating people are the ones I care to be around. These are qualities I nurture within and wish to support in others.

Being white and queer is weird because humans tend to overthink. I can choose to present myself as straight and experience that privilege, and I can present as gay and experience that. Presenting as bisexual is often met with the uncomfortable preconceptions I mentioned earlier. Who cares? All these acts, like any, are me throwing a different type of ball at a wall until one breaks through — which curated combination of myself will shatter society’s walls and take me to the other side? I can be flexible in how I present myself because society has not hijacked my identity. How do we give marginalized people the freedom to form their own narratives? I pray my work does more than skirt along the surface of these questions.

It is easy for me to omit my queerness by not discussing it in the workplace. Unfortunately, not all spaces make it easy for me to embrace it. What’s worse, this privilege I have, to choose which label someone is inevitably going to pin on me, is not something that you can do with your gender or with the color of your skin. I was having a drink with a television producer recently. An older, established straight white man, who told me that the company he works for insists that a certain amount of directors on his show be female, queer or persons of colour. When he told me the hard part was “that that not many women or people of colour make good directors,” I was disgusted. He doesn’t realize that men in his position, only recently being forced to be more liberal with who they give their opportunities to, is why the roster of “alternative” talent is so short. There is no defense for his words.

When telling a story there is at once a compulsion to expand beyond heteronormative narratives, and a compulsion to adhere to them. Navigating whether or not I am doing something because it is on trend, versus because it is the most compelling direction for my story is important. Naturalism often requires work and the ability to navigate a lot of crap. I think life, for me right now, is taking accountability for what I pay attention to. Both internally and externally. All I know is what I focus on, what I live, and what stories I choose to believe as fact.

Benjamin Wachtel by one of his paintings

For years I thought it was easier to paint women because male anatomy was more difficult to draw. The truth was that painting a man felt pornographic. The beauty of a female figure depicted alone, with another man, or even with other females is generally more accepted. Painting a man, or two men together were things society had conditioned me to avoid.

People often tell me that the figures in my drawings are androgynous. Last year I sat down to draw a woman by a lake. It was a quick charcoal sketch. She’s sitting at the edge of the water with her back to the viewer. I show this lakeside sketch to a gallery and, out of all my other samples, they select it for exhibition because of the ambiguity of the figure’s gender. Meanwhile, I’m scratching my head because I in no way intended for the woman to be androgynous. I guess I need to practice my line drawings. My subconscious is up to something.

Challenging ignorance and circumspection is an intrinsic part of my life as a Russian-born artist living in America. My efforts may prove that the walls between us are impenetrable — that our mortal bond has been forgotten. Hopefully not. I believe in storytelling as a pathway to empathy. Fictional circumstances allow humanity to digest the repercussions of free will. While art cannot show us the future, it can show us how our actions shape it. I hope we forever reimagine what it means to be a human being.

Benjamin Wachtel is an independent writer and director who was born in Moscow, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and raised in London and New York City. When he’s not developing film and television content, Benjamin paints large scale impressionistic works for private buyers. His work most recently showed at the RA 2017 Summer show in London. 

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